Ever since Arizona Theatre Company announced early last year that it had optioned Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves, I've been wondering: Why? This threadbare marriage comedy is usually seen, on those occasions when it's trotted out, at tiny community houses, where audiences are more tolerant of pale pleasantries. The state's largest and most stylish Equity company has inexplicably optioned a show that unfolds like an interminable rerun of Love, American Style. Except it's set in England. And it's only about half as funny.
The estimable Ayckbourn has gone on to write more savvy appraisals of the British working class (Woman in Mind, Man of the Moment), but 1969's How the Other Half Loves is reflective of the author's earlier work, all of which was written to draw crowds into tiny resort-town playhouses. On ATC's roomy stage, where we're accustomed to tonier work, this period piece appears cheap and tacky.
The show's primary conceit is that the action takes place in two living rooms simultaneously, with both locations existing at once on the same stage. The cast must cross back and forth, passing but ignoring one another, while reciting dialogue that draws parallels between them. We're meant to be amused by the similarities and differences between the breakfast habits of the working class and their betters; to be entertained for two and a half hours by watching, among other tricks, both sides of a telephone conversation.
The story concerns three married couples: the well-to-do Fosters, Fiona (drab, middle-aged socialite) and Frank (department head in an unnamed industry); Bob (Fiona's lover, Frank's employee) and Theresa (frumpy, bored young housewife); and the super-neurotic Featherstones, William and Mary. Fiona, in an attempt to distract Frank from her own infidelity, invents an affair between Bob and Mary. Typical mix-ups ensue, none of them particularly amusing, and all of them involving cross-talk and contradiction.
To Ayckbourn's credit, Other Half does include some droll dialogue (Fiona observes that Teresa's baby "looks like an unsuccessful Hobart"), and the author does mix up dramatic structure by overlapping dates and times in the same scene. Most notable is the long section in which two dinner parties, hosted on different nights at different homes, take place at once. Mary and William are present at both, and must respond nimbly to the scene's constant shifts, a feat well accomplished thanks to director Andrew J. Traister, who keeps the two parties separate with some pretty precise staging.
But once this two-places-at-once gimmick wears thin -- which it does rather quickly -- we're left with little more than the energetic mugging of the exemplary cast. Juliet Pritner is charming as the blowsy, big-hearted Teresa (imagine Helena Bonham Carter as channeled by Lulu), and Michael Santo's Frank is the perfect blustery bore. But not even these standout performances -- or a superb, scene-stealing turn by local favorite Katie McFadzen, making her ATC debut here -- are enough to save this dinner theater confection from itself. In Other Half, there's no trace of the deeper sense of purpose in Ayckbourn's later work, only the goofy "fun" that earned him the unfortunate title of "the British Neil Simon." Like Simon's most annoying comedies, this one is overbearing and unsubtle in its search for laughs.
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